What are the Different Types of Heirloom Dresses?

Sheri Cyprus

There are several different types of heirloom dresses. Christening gowns as well as special handmade outfits for holidays such as Easter are popular kinds of heirloom dresses. While most heirloom dress styles are for children, this type of sewing for adult women includes heavily embellished handmade special occasion dresses, such as those worn to church functions, weddings and other celebrations. Some embroidered and smocked adult heirloom dresses are made from lightweight white fabric so the garments can be worn during warmer months.

Heirloom dresses may be made out of organza.
Heirloom dresses may be made out of organza.

The skirt of a handmade heirloom summer dress for a woman is often lavishly embroidered from the bottom hem about halfway to the waist, or even higher. The top section is likely to be sleeveless and feature the gathered lines of stitching known as smocking. Smocking adds a detailed texture as well as shaping to the bodice of a heirloom dress. Children's handmade heirloom dresses often feature a smocked bodice as well as a gathered, full skirt. Embroidered details such as flowers or animal motifs are often added to the waistband, neckline and/or skirt's center.

An heirloom dress might be used for Catholic communion ceremonies.
An heirloom dress might be used for Catholic communion ceremonies.

Whereas children's heirloom flower girl dresses for weddings may be made in many different pastel or jewel-toned colors, one designed for the Catholic ceremony of Communion is in white. White Communion heirloom dresses may be long or short, with many layers or more simple in shape. Traditional Communion dresses have long sleeves, but some modern styles may be sleeveless if the church permits it. A child's heirloom dress for a pageant or a music recital is often very different from Communion dresses.

Pageant heirloom dresses usually have a lot of beads, sequins or jewels. They may be sleeveless or feature full sleeves, depending on the event and season. Children's pageant dresses are made in a variety of colors, as are those for women.

Women's pageant dresses are typically long gowns. They may be simple in shape, yet feature extravagant beaded or sequined patterns that really make the garments stand out. If the fabric is plain, then the details of a women's pageant dress are usually very pronounced. Ruffled edges, gathered sweeps and dramatic draping are common pageant design details for women's dresses.

All types of heirloom dresses are made with fine quality fabrics such as satin, silk and organza. A winter weight heirloom dress may be created in velvet or wool, while a summer one tends to be made from cotton or silk. An heirloom dress of any type should be carefully stored in an acid-free storage box.

Heirloom dresses might be worn for wedding ceremonies.
Heirloom dresses might be worn for wedding ceremonies.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - The problem with any kind of heirloom clothes is that they assume that people will be able to wear them. Even children are bigger at the same age now than they would have been a hundred years ago and I know there is no way I'd be able to fit into a wedding dress that my grandmother wore, simply because I'm much taller than she was.

I think this is one of the reasons that heirloom clothes aren't as popular these days. You'd have to modify them for everyone who had to wear them, which is kind of beside the point of keeping them handy.


@MrsPramm - The thing about heirloom dresses is that they take a very long time to make and the materials can be either rare or expensive or both. I think it's fairly rare these days for anyone to do this for a living, as it can take months of work for a single piece and they usually wouldn't be able to sell it for enough to make up for the time.

Instead it gets done in spare moments as a kind of hobby, so it's likely that heirloom dresses, particularly children's heirloom dresses, which will only be worn a couple of times, are made with the intention of passing them on to multiple generations.


I was in a non-fiction writing class a few years ago and we had to critique other people's articles. One of the articles I critiqued for a fellow student was about heirloom embroidery and some women who will do it for Christening gowns and other religious clothes.

I guess the only thing is that if you have someone in the family who can make heirloom dresses like that, there's not so much need to keep the dresses. The techniques can be passed down anyway, so a new dress can be made for each occasion.

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